While garbage disposals are useful, they can also be a major source of plumbing problems when not used correctly. Maintaining your garbage disposal and ensuring you use it correctly is essential for preventing clogs, keeping the unit from jamming and helping to protect its life. Luckily, keeping your garbage disposal in good working order and avoiding issues is simple if you follow these basic tips.

Be Careful About What Goes in Your Garbage Disposal

The most important part of maintaining and protecting your garbage disposal is to only use it as it is intended, which means only grinding up smaller scraps of softer food. One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that their garbage disposal can handle everything and treating it like a trash can. If you’re not careful about what goes into your garbage disposal, you could easily end up clogging your drain or jamming the unit.

Any hard food items like bones and fruit pits can easily end up jamming the disposal and dulling the grinding plate. Fibrous foods like meat, celery, banana peel and squash. can also easily cause a jam as they can get wound around the impeller plate and motor shaft. It’s also important to avoid putting any starchy foods like potatoes, rice, pasta and other grains into a garbage disposal since they can easily cause a drain clog. It is also important that you chop up whatever goes into the disposal into small pieces and never put too much food into it at one time since this could also cause a clog or jam up the unit.

Never Run Your Garbage Disposal Dry

Any time you use your garbage disposal, you always need to turn the cold water on before you turn on the disposal. Running the disposal dry for a few seconds generally isn’t an issue, but you never want to let it run too long without water.

The most obvious reason why it is important to have the water running when using a garbage disposal is to flush all the scraps down the drain. If you run the disposal dry, all the food it grinds up will collect inside the unit and start to get packed inside the drainpipe. When this happens, it can create a clog in the pipe that is extremely difficult to remove.

The other reason why you must have the water running is that it cools and lubricates the unit. The motor in a garbage disposal sits under the grinding chamber. On top of the motor is a shaft that sticks up into the grinding chamber and spins the impeller. This shaft has a rotary seal around it that prevents water from leaking out of the chamber and coming into contact with the motor. As the shaft spins, friction is produced that causes the seal to start heating up. Water helps to cool the seal down and lubricate it so that there is less friction.

If you don’t have the water running, the heat and friction will quickly start to damage the seal and lead to water escaping and the disposal starting to leak. If the seal does get damaged and your disposal starts leaking, your only option will be to replace the unit since the seal cannot be replaced or repaired.

Always Run the Disposal With Cold Water

No matter how careful you are, there will always be times when some fat or grease gets inside the disposal. If you were to run the disposal with hot water, it would cause the fat or grease to melt and start sticking inside the disposal and the drainpipe. The fats will then create a sticky layer inside the disposal and pipe that can capture other food scraps and eventually lead to a major clog. This is why you should always use cold water since it will keep any fats solid so that they can be chopped up and easily flow down the drain.

Make Sure All Food Is Ground Up Before Shutting the Disposal Off

You should always listen to your garbage disposal when it is running. It is easy to tell when a garbage disposal is actively grinding up food scraps and when it is just spinning and running empty simply by listening to the sound it makes. Once you hear it is done grinding everything up, you should leave it running for a few more seconds with the water on to ensure that everything gets flushed down the drain. If you turn the disposal off too soon before it is fully finished grinding everything up, there is a high chance that the remaining food scraps will cause it to jam up the next time you try to use it.

Turn Off the Disposal Immediately If It Gets Jammed

Garbage disposals can be prone to jamming up if you overload them or try to grind up harder items. If a garbage disposal is jammed, you’ll hear the motor humming, but you won’t hear the impeller spinning or the food in it being ground up. When this happens, it is important that you immediately turn the disposal off. Running a disposal when it is jammed will cause the motor to quickly heat up and can easily lead to it burning out in only a short time. This issue is why many garbage disposals have a reset button that will trip and shut the disposal off if it gets jammed or in the event of a power surge. However, sometimes the reset button can fail, which is why you should immediately shut the unit off if you hear it is jammed.

All garbage disposals have a slot on the underside that is used to unjam the unit. When your garbage disposal jams, you should first unplug the unit and then insert an Allen wrench into this slot and then turn it counterclockwise as far as it will go. Turning the wrench manually moves the motor shaft and spins the impeller plate. Once the wrench won’t turn any further, you should then turn it clockwise as far as it will go. As you manually move the motor shaft, you should be able to free whatever was jamming the disposal so that the impeller plate again spins freely.

Before turning the disposal back on, you should use a flashlight to look inside it for whatever object caused it to jam. If possible, you should try to remove any objects or food scraps from the unit with a pair of kitchen tongs. You can then try running the unit again to see if the impeller now spins and the disposal works as it should. Even if the disposal is unplugged, you should never stick your fingers in it.

Clean Your Garbage Disposal Regularly

Even if you use your garbage disposal properly, some food bits will also get stuck inside it. This can lead to nasty drain odors, clogs, jams and other issues, which is why it’s important that you make sure to clean your garbage disposal at least once a month. Vinegar and baking soda are great for loosening up stuck-on food particles and cleaning out both the disposal and drainpipe. Occasionally running ice cubes through the disposal will also help keep it clean, and you can also eliminate odors by grinding up a few slices of lemon or any other citrus fruit.

With nearly 30 years of experience, John Henry's Plumbing, Heating, Air, and Electrical is the company to trust for all your plumbing, electrical and HVAC needs in the Lincoln or Omaha area. If you’re having issues with your garbage disposal or need any other plumbing installation or repair services, contact us to get the expert help your home needs.

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